THREE YEARS BEFORE SLAPPY HOOPER and two years before their landmark They Seek a City, Arna Bontemps and Jack Conroy had their biggest commercial success: The Fast Sooner Hound (1942). A footnote to Bontemps's role in the Harlem Renaissance, or a footnote to worker-writer Jack Conroy's WPA work as a collector of folktales, The Fast Sooner Hound is perhaps most interesting as a footnote to children's book illustration. It boasts art by Virginia Lee Burton, the author and artist of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel (1939) and the Caldecott medalist The Little House (1942).
Burton had illustrated Bontemps's 1937 children's novel Sad-Faced Boy, her first work as a book illustrator, released in the same year as her first picture book Choo-Choo: The Story of a Little Engine Who Ran Away. The work on Sad-Face Boy had been a rush job, but it had satisfied Bontemps so well that he requested Burton to be the illustrator of his picture book with Conroy. Burton found working on other people's texts too constricting. She conceived each page layout as one cohesive design and in her own work, she would tailor the length of the text to meet the visual requirements. She agreed to illustrate The Fast Sooner Hound but was then appalled by the amount of text on each page. Burton's struggle to compose each page is evident in the final work with more spot illustrations than in any of her own books and blocks of text limiting the flow of her more ambitious pages. In the end The Fast Sooner Hound proved to be the last book Burton illustrated that she did not write or adapt (making Bontemps the author of both Burton's first and last book as an illustrator).
"'He ain't ever spent a night or a day or even an hour away from me. He'd cry fit to break his heart...so loud you couldn't hear yourself think...'
The Roadmaster said, 'It's against the rules of the rules of the railroad to allow a passenger in the cab...That's Rule Number One on this road, and it's never been broken yet. What's more, it never will be broken as long as I'm Roadmaster....'
'He don't have to ride in the cab. He just runs alongside the train...'
'Oh, come now,' said the Roadmaster. 'The dog isn't born that can outrun one of our freight trains.'"
And so begins a series of bets.
First the Boomer's put on a freight train. Sooner runs alongside. And Sooner wins.
Then a passenger train. Sooner runs alongside.
And Sooner wins.
Then a "Limited." Sooner runs alongside. And Sooner wins.
"By that time people who lived along the railroad tracks were getting interested in the races." And seeing Sooner win again and again, people began to think "he made the trains seem slow." "If you shipped a yearling calf to market on one of them, he'd be a grown-up beef by the time he got there."
The Roadmaster can't let the bad publicity damage his railway, so he makes a final bet. The Boomer will be on the Cannon Ball and the Roadmaster will go along for the ride. If Sooner can beat the Cannon Ball, he can sit in the cab and the Roadmaster will walk back.
"The train pulled out of the station like a streak of lighting. It took three men to see the Canon Ball pass on that run: one to say, 'There she comes,' one to say, 'Here she is,' and another to say, 'There she goes.'"
"The Boomer...didn't mind giving the dog a good run. He worked so hard he wore the hinges off the fire door. He wore the shovel down to a nub. He sweated so hard his socks got soaking wet in his shoes."
As the train nears the end of its run, Sooner is nowhere to be seen and the Roadmaster thinks he's won his bet. But then a crowd at the station belies his victory. Sooner is already there chasing a rabbit. The Roadmaster is livid, but he keeps to his word. "'P-p-put him in the cab,' he sputtered," and he walks home.
TO READ THE FAST SOONER HOUND in its entirety, see my Flickr set here. Background information on Virginia Lee Burton came from Virginia Lee Burton: A Life In Art by Barbara Elleman. Elleman wrote an excellent short treatment of Burton's life for School Library Journal on the sixtieth anniversary of The Little House, which can be read here.
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